"One may gain political and social independence, but if one is a slave to his passions and desires, one cannot feel the pure joy of real freedom." - Swami Vivekananda













PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | April 2004  





           Aspects of Holy Mother




          Swami Sunirmalananda




     Three aspects of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi surprise postmodernists: her illiteracy, her ignorance of scientific things and her simple, rustic appearance. Holy Mother is considered the ideal of the present and future ages. She is said to represent the ideal and glory of perfect womanhood in particular and of the ideal of motherhood in general. Yet in a few aspects like those mentioned above, she appears to be different from the present and future generations of women. We are not going to discuss here her traits like purity, character and spirituality, but shall concentrate only on her secular education and simplicity.




     Holy Mother and Education




     One of the surprising aspects of Holy Mother is her so-called lack of secular learning. She did not have the basics of schooling. With some effort, she could just manage to read. But she could not write. (1) If at all, she is said to have written ma in Bengali once - that is all. How could she be the ideal of the ultramodern woman then? Or is the ideal of the future woman such rural simplicity and lack of secular knowledge? Perhaps not. Considering the present information revolution, the way education is spreading everywhere and the fact that womens education is gaining tremendous boost the world over, it is rather surprising that the ideal of future womanhood herself should have been virtually illiterate.


     Several reasons are put forth for Holy Mothers illiteracy. One, she strove to learn but was dissuaded by ignorant relatives. However, she stealthily learnt the Bengali alphabet initially and, later, learnt to read from a little girl. (2) This urge to learn is presented as the urge of the modern woman to learn. Two, the reason why women of modern times should be educated is because the ideal of the modern age, Holy Mother, suffered so much and showed how learning could help in certain situations of life. Three, her own desire to learn being unfulfilled, and because of her awareness that learning is vital to life, Holy Mother initiated several institutions like the Nivedita School and the school at Badanganj, near her village, so that women could learn. Four, Holy Mother need not have to learn because she is Sarasvati herself, the goddess of learning. Five, her lack of learning and her innocence appear as a sweet sport of the Divine Mother for the devotee.


     These are good reasons and may appeal to devotees and admirers. But as an ideal, it is a different matter. Devotees may accept the ideal as it is, for they know. For the modern and future generations to accept this ideal, however, we should present reasons. Moreover, it is not that she should be selectively accepted. An ideal is an ideal. Therefore the modern woman - computer savvy, learned, English-speaking, cellphone-waving, vehicle-driving, college-educated - and Holy Mother, an innocent villager, cannot perhaps go together. Is Holy Mother outdated then? How should one reconcile her lack of learning with her being the ideal of the future woman?


     The above five reasons apart, there are also two methods of reconciliation: the computer method and the philosophy method.


     Computer Method: Time was when people thought knowledge of typing was indispensable for learning computers. However, with the advent of voice mail, the recorder and so on, we can imagine future generations seeing our keyboards in museums. They may wonder that to express our thoughts we ancients used fingers. So there is no harm if one does not know typing now. But what about writing? Like typing, writing on paper with pen or pencil, too, could become obsolete. It is true that the time is imminent when computers will replace exercise books and white sheets. How many literate and working people use pen and paper now as they did before? Even personal signatures are going digital. Already we hear of schools in several countries using computers to train even kindergarten children. So writing is not absolutely needed now. We dont know what the Silicon Valley has in store for us for the future. Therefore Holy Mother was ahead of her times in not being able to write, but able to communicate verbally, and through thought. Language, as we know, was not a barrier for her to express herself or to understand her disciples and admirers from different regions of India and abroad. Regarding language, we shall speak presently.


     Philosophy Method: Post-structuralism is the latest trend in Western philosophy. Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and others are the pioneers in this field. Most of them are French, Derrida being the most famous of them; he has made major contributions in the field of post-structuralism and deconstruction.


     Structuralism was the hope of philosophy, language, anthropology, literature and so on, because they all sought a scientific ground or a rational basis for their existence. Structuralism was developed in order to seek meaning or the common ground of things. According to the dictionary, structuralism is a theory that considers any text as a structure whose various parts only have meaning when they are considered in relation to each other. That is, when we read various things in a book, we seek their central meaning. Derrida argued against structuralism. He says that when we believe in structuralism, we believe in what the text ought to mean rather than what it actually means. That is, we are pre-conditioned. So his theory was destructuralism, based on Martin Heideggers Destruktion. Derrida argued that whenever you think of structuralism, you seek the centre of something, which is wrong. By seeking the centre, we ignore the other things; we sideline the binary opposites. He was for the ignored things rather than the central figure put on the pedestal. Generally understood, deconstruction, then, is reading things without seeking the centre or the rock bottom or the foundation; it is giving importance to the sidelined things too.


     In 1966, Derrida gave a lecture at Johns Hopkins University, USA, that became revolutionary according to Jim Powell (Derrida for Beginners). Here, Derrida showed that the whole of Western philosophy is dependent on this theory of structuralism. How is that? Derrida said that because the God of Christianity was centralized by all post-Greek philosophers, certain other things were excluded. What were the things excluded? God, according to Christianity, is the Word, Logos. In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Derrida calls the Word or God the Transcendental Signified. Signified and signifier are two terms commonly used in Derrida literature. We have their equivalents in rupa (form) and nama (name), respectively. The signified is form, like cowness, while the signifier is the name given to it. The real cow is the referent. So God is the Transcendental Signified. The popular (transcendental) signifiers are Truth, God, supreme Spirit and so on. These are names but they dont fully describe It or God. Yet Western philosophers have depended on them, which have become central to philosophy. When it comes to God, we cannot have a referent. So He or It is transcendental. So He or It is called the Transcendental Signified. This is like Vedanta: according to Vedanta, God is the innermost experience of the soul. What God is cannot be explained.


     Derrida argues that the Transcendental Signified cannot have a signifier or nama. Can words express Him or It? Even Vedanta asks the same question. He is beyond everything. His best expression is Logos or the Word. God expressed Himself through the Word. That became the Son. It is like speech, where one expresses ones self directly. Somewhat speaking in the language of the Indian Sphota theory, where there are the four stages of speech (para, pashyanti, madhyama and vaikhari), Derrida says that when we speak, we speak our soul out. That is, the innermost self is speaking itself - para becomes vaikhari. There is the presence of the speaker in speech. Writing, however, is different. A person may write something and die. So there is absence. Speech is soul poured out in presence, whereas writing signifies absence. Writing, according to Derrida, is 'less immediate'. It is corruption. It is said that Socrates too spoke of writing being secondary to speech. Derrida says that when writing was developed the word or speech was ignored. Writing became central, and speech was sidelined.


     There was a time when things were natural. We did not know how to write. We were pure then. We heard truths from the lips of experienced elders. There was presence then, not absence. Nowadays a person need not have any experience but may write. So it is not the soul speaking. Once we began to write we became corrupt, says Derrida. His On Grammatology, according to Jim Powell, is a classic which argues in favour of speech. Modern philosophers are fast accepting Derridas view that speech is natural and has the personal touch, while writing is formal.


     We have used this to show that even from the philosophical point of view, Holy Mother was extremely modern because she considered speech as better than writing. One may say she did not know how to write. Yes, but suppose Holy Mother really had wished to learn the art of writing. Who could have stopped her? Yet she did not learn the art of writing. She spoke. And that transformed everyone. Therefore Holy Mother is ultramodern and a perfect ideal for the future woman. Then again, we believe the Satya Yuga has begun with the advent of Sri Ramakrishna. Perhaps, in order to be in tune with that age, the ideals of the age (and of future ages) - Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi - chose to remain illiterate, as it were. Calligraphy and the art of writing are comparatively recent. Our sages transmitted knowledge verbally, and that has in fact came down intact. Can we say the Vedic sages were ignorant? They knew far better than all of us put together.




     Holy Mother and Technology




     In the modern world of gadgets and the Internet, Holy Mother belongs nowhere, so it would seem. She appears outmoded and in no way linked to our technological world. She did not know that air trapped in a water pipe made the tap hiss; she did not know how to wind a clock; she did not know anything about science. She was scared to ride in a car. Yet she has to be the ideal. How can this be possible?


     The answer to this puzzle is simple: Even Newton and Einstein, the pioneers of modern scientific development, would look quite unscientific, when placed in present circumstances. They knew less than todays schoolboy does, because the schoolboy is computer savvy, while the computer is a strange thing for them. They are out of date.


     But the point is, the scientific spirit shows in the way of thinking and not in the lifestyle. One may be perfectly unscientific amid all the gadgets in the world, and a rustic could be scientific in the absence of such gadgets. One may be a professional scientist and yet be perfectly unscientific in thinking. As a matter of fact, even in this so-called age of science most people think in a surprisingly primitive way. Really, are we rational? Are we open to newer ideas? Are we unbiased? Are we ready to give up our pet notions when new truths are revealed, or do we raise impregnable walls against new ideas? That is the test. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi passes the test admirably. Though she came with a purpose, she never imposed her ideas on anyone.


     Another thing that appears unscientific in Holy Mother is her faith in strange remedies, in which modern people do not trust, for example the clay of the Simhavahini temple. In 1875, when Holy Mother was twenty-two years old, she had a severe attack of dysentery. While she was suffering intensely, the village goddess Simhavahini suggested the cure to her mother Shyamasundari, which relieved her of her suffering. (55-6) Since then Holy Mother believed in the clay of the precincts of the Simhavahini temple. That became a regular medicine.


     The second treatment was not her invention, but was a local practice that she too abided by. When someone had malaria, the only medicine the villagers of those parts knew was to heat an iron rod and apply it on the region over the spleen. The singeing, they believed, would cure people of malaria. Even Ramakrishna underwent this treatment. But unlike others, Holy Mother did not wish to be tied or held down by others; she had such control over herself that she simply lay down and endured the torture.


     How does one explain such strange beliefs? We shall not discuss the second cure, as Holy Mother must have been a helpless victim of her circumstances. But regarding the first, Mothers trust in the Simhavahini clay, it is perfectly scientific. The question here is of faith. Says Swami Vivekananda:


     It is not the sign of a candid and scientific mind to throw overboard anything without proper investigation. Surface scientists, unable to explain the various extraordinary mental phenomena, strive to ignore their very existence. They are, therefore, more culpable than those who think that their prayers are answered by a being, or beings, above the clouds, or than those who believe that their petitions will make such beings change the course of the universe. The latter have the excuse of ignorance. The former have no such excuse. (2)


     Moreover, faith heals better than any drug. And there is a God who looks into our affairs all the time.


     There was a time when the medical world pooh-poohed prayer and faith as factors in healing. Several years ago Readers Digest published an article from an official medical journal, saying that prayers are as effective as medicines in curing diseases. The thing in itself, like medicine, is of some importance, true; but of greater importance is the mindset receiving the thing. Holy Mother came to instil faith in human beings. Not that we should believe in spooks and hobgoblins, but the great quality of simple faith has been destroyed in the name of science. All of Ramakrishnas and Holy Mothers work was centred around restoring that faith once again in human minds. Faith can achieve anything.


     Nowadays there is a rush to the Simhavahini temple, from where people take a little clay hoping to cure ailments. During Holy Mothers time, there were no other means in that remote village. But whenever doctors were available, Holy Mother resorted to them with full faith.




     Holy Mothers Simplicity




     These days appearance is everything. What you are may be different; but what you seem is vital. All that glitters is gold. That is why our postmodern world needs ideals like movie stars, who glitter and shine, and that is why the true and the genuine suffer.


     Holy Mother can in no way come near such modern-day ideals. Far, far from them. If one looks at her photographs, one sees her attired in a cheap, simple, white sari. All her jewels are a pair of bangles - perfectly old-fashioned. In only three photographs we see her seated on a chair. In all the rest, she is her simple self. She definitely knew she would be worshipped for all time to come, yet she did not care for external glitter. So Holy Mother is not appealing in that sense of the word. Can such a simple woman appeal to the glittering present and future ages?


     Suppose some modern people do not find much appeal in Holy Mother. That is perfectly all right. As Sri Ramakrishna used to say, the Divine Mother does not want the play to end. She wishes that it should continue. If all the players touch the granny in the play of hideand-seek, the play will end. That the Divine Mother does not want. So she hides herself. If the children want the glitter, let them go for it. Let them play with the toys of the world. When they get tired, they will cry for Mother. And Mother is, of course, always there for those who want her.


     The second reason why Holy Mother appears so simple is that she is the ideal and harbinger of the future. And surprisingly enough, the future will be nothing but the glorious past of India, only even more glorious. Says Swamiji:


     "Many times have I been told that looking into the past only degenerates and leads to nothing, and that we should look to the future. That is true. But out of the past is built the future. Look back, therefore, as far as you can, drink deep of the eternal fountains that are behind, and after that, look forward, march forward and make India brighter, greater, much higher than she ever was. Our ancestors were great. We must first recall that". (3.285-6)


     We move in circles, not straight lines. The future will most certainly take us back to the simplicity of the past. Swamiji says:


     "On one side, new India is saying, If we only adopt Western ideas, Western language, Western food, Western dress, and Western manners, we shall be as strong and powerful as the Western nations; on the other, old India is saying, Fools! By imitation, others ideas never become ones own; nothing, unless earned, is your own. Does the ass in the lions skin become the lion?" (4.477)


     Originality will be the watchword of the future, and Holy Mother is a best example of that. Further, purity is the greatest ornament, and that was what Holy Mother came to demonstrate. We should quote Swamiji again because he is eloquent in the praise of Sita:


     "Sita is unique; that character was depicted once and for all. [She was] purer than purity itself, all patience, and all suffering. She who suffered that life of suffering without a murmur, she the ever-chaste and ever-pure wife, she the ideal of the people, the ideal of the gods, the great Sita, our national God she must always remain. And every one of us knows her too well to require much delineation. All our mythology may vanish, even our Vedas may depart, and our Sanskrit language may vanish for ever, but so long as there will be five Hindus living here, even if only speaking the most vulgar patois, there will be the story of Sita present. Mark my words: Sita has gone into the very vitals of our race. She is there in the blood of every Hindu man and woman; we are all children of Sita. Any attempt to modernise our women, if it tries to take our women away from that ideal of Sita, is immediately a failure, as we see every day. The women of India must grow and develop in the footprints of Sita, and that is the only way". (3.256)


     Just replace the word Sita with Sarada and re-read the above lines, for both were one.


     Tired of the glamour of the past century, the world is slowly reverting to natural ways of life. The old simplicity and naturalness is becoming the ideal once more. Everywhere we hear of ecology, nature cure, alternative lifestyles and so on. This trend is bound to continue. Holy Mother came to show that through her life. This does not mean technology will go. It will remain. But life on earth itself will become simple - for our own survival. The naturalness and simplicity of Holy Mothers life indeed give us a foretaste of things to come.







     1. Swami Gambhirananda, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1977), 30-1.


     2. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.121.

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